Familiar phrases like “gallows humor,” “swinging sixties” and “neck and neck” take on a disturbingly literal meaning when applied to “Hangmen,” Martin McDonagh’s old-fashioned, engrossing and extremely entertaining new play. It is receiving its New York debut at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company following a hit run in London.
New stage works by the British-Irish McDonagh (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) have unfortunately become a rarity since he became a major Hollywood director and screenwriter (“In Bruges,” the Oscar-nominated “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
“Hangmen” is unquestionably one of the most exciting Off-Broadway productions of the season. No surprise, it’s currently sold out. But considering how “Leenane” and “Inishmore” both transferred to Broadway after premiering at the Atlantic, don’t be surprised if “Hangmen” follows the same path.
Inspired by a (potentially wrongful) execution that occurred shortly before England’s abolition of capital punishment in 1965, Harry Wade (Mark Addy, “Game of Thrones”), the country’s second-best professional hangman, is seen stroking his oversized ego at his pub in northern England, in front of his working-class patrons, disillusioned wife Alice (Sally Rogers) and sensitive teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).
In walks Mooney (Johnny Flynn, in an electrifying, star-making performance), a self-described “menacing” young Londoner who might have framed a man that Harry hanged two years earlier on murder charges.
Mooney has also got Harry’s bungling former assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith) involved in his elaborate scheme, which (at the very least) is intended to bring Harry down to size.
This is a meticulously-plotted work containing interesting, well-developed characters and built upon elements of black comedy, pub drama, physical farce, whodunit mystery, action thriller and legal drama — not to mention a noose and countless pints of cask ale.
The lively production (directed by Matthew Dunster, with a rich scenic design and superb cast) finds the ideal balance between roaring entertainment and grim uneasiness.